|Book by Lauren DeStefano. Design by Lizzy Bromley. This cover design is so luscious, I want to lick it off a spoon.|
I'll admit it: I read Wither by Lauren DeStefano because I like the cover art. It caught my eye at work while I was hurrying past the Teen Room, and I plucked it from a display shelf and checked it out before I'd even gotten a chance to read the jacket. When I finally read the synopsis, I was excited. A post-genetic-apocalypse trilogy in which girls live to the age of 20, boys live to the age of 25, most babies are born malformed, and girls are kidnapped and polygamously wedded to wealthy men so they can produce healthy children for rich families? Umm... This sounds just a little bit like The Handmaid's Tale! I couldn't wait to read it.
With hopes that high, I was bound to be disappointed.
Rhine is a teenage orphan who knows she will die in four years. She lives in constant fear of being kidnapped by a "Gatherer." Gatherers sell girls into marriages where they are spoiled rotten, but they're expected to churn out scads of babies. Rhine and her twin brother live in their parents' old house, which they booby-trapped to keep out Gatherers. They sleep in shifts, with one twin keeping watch with a shotgun while the other sleeps. Rhine's brother often won't let her go to work, because he is so afraid the Gatherers will get her. Her life totally sucks. Oh, and she has strangely colored eyes due to a genetic mutation, and this is probably going to be significant later on in the series.
Then Rhine is kidnapped and sold into a marriage with a super-hot, ultra-sensitive 20 year old architect named Linden. Linden is sweet and gentle and doesn't make Rhine do anything she doesn't want to do, if you know what I'm sayin'. Rhine is waited on all day by attendants who draw magical fizzing bubblebaths, create custom couture for her, and feed her anything she likes. She is safe and well-guarded in her new home; she likes her two sister wives; she has a crush on one of the servants. There are just a few problems.
Life is kind of boring, because she can't leave the estate. And Rhine's 70-something year old father in law might be experimenting on bodies in the basement. But he's not a total creeper: He's searching for an antidote to the genetic problem that's killing all the young people. Rhine is convinced that he's doing all kinds of foul things to dead people, but there's never any clear evidence. Just characters exchanging significant glances when they refer to the basement, which could mean anything. But Rhine is really pissed and wants to go back to her previous life, because she's a dumbass.
Here's the thing about post-apocalyptic societies: They're supposed to be believable because they're based on real principles like psychology and economics. Wither isn't so much a post-apocalyptic tale as a half-baked excuse to titillate people who get off on the idea of girls in peril, forced marriage, and imprisoned brides. Imagine this: The world is populated with a huge number of starving, homeless orphans who freeze to death in the winter. And wealthy households are willing to take in girls, who they spoil rotten and treat like royalty. The wives' luxurious lives are televised, so everyone knows how great it is to be married to a rich dude (or at least, it's nicer than starving and freezing to death).
In a culture like this, do you really think it's necessary for "Gatherers" to kidnap girls and force them into marriages? Heck no! IT'S SUPPLY AND DEMAND, Y'ALL. With a huge supply of hungry orphans and a relatively smaller demand for young brides, girls would be lining up for the opportunity to marry into one of these rich families! Keep in mind that this society isn't our society. It's not like the girls in this culture expect to have long, fulfilling careers and interesting lives. They know they're going to die at age 20, so they're not making life plans. They just want to focus on, you know, not starving.
But IF Gatherers were needed, and IF rich men paid the Gatherers large sums of money to procure brides, do you REALLY think the Gatherers would show a girl to one rich man and then shoot her if she wasn't chosen? HELL NO! That girl = Dollar bills! They'd take her to the next rich man and see if he wanted to buy her. And so on, and so on. This entire scenario is stupid.
And here's the thing about science fiction: It's supposed to be based on actual science. Okay, so geneticists tinkered with the human genome a bit too much, with disastrous results. That's believable. But telling the reader that the polar ice caps melted and then setting the story in a Florida beach town isn't going to work, okay? If the ice caps melt, Florida won't exist. And even IF it somehow exists, there wouldn't be snowstorms in Florida, as described in the story, because the weather would get warmer, NOT colder. BAD SCIENCE! BAD!
Similarly, the idea that every continent except North America has been bombed into oblivion and submerged in the ocean, with little uninhabitable islands sticking up in some places, is just ridiculous. Continents aren't pieces of candy that can be broken up into little pieces. They're huge landmasses sitting atop tectonic plates! And if that much mass somehow did sink into the ocean, the water would be displaced. Sea levels would rise. And Florida wouldn't exist. Say it with me: BAD SCIENCE! BAD!
So the scenario was foolish, but I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't put it down. There were a few unanswered questions that nagged at me, and I wanted to know the answers. What would happen when poor dumb innocent Linden learned Where Brides Come From? What was the significance of Rhine's strange eyes? What was really going on in the basement? The author answered none of these questions, and I was so mad at the end of the book. Of course, this is a trilogy, so answers might come later, but I wanted the satisfaction of at least one answer.
Really, the best thing about this book is the gorgeous cover art, designed by Lizzy Bromley. As far as I can tell, she exclusively designs for YA novels, and her work is so evocative and interesting. Look at this title page, with its motifs that evoke molecular structure! I love it. Check out her work, and leave this book on the shelf, unless you're looking for a light distraction that you can simultaneously love and hate.